Assembly ups hit-and-run sentences, needs Senate approval

06/19/2014 5:25 PM |
Friends set up a memorial on Route 58 for hit-and-run victim Kristina Tfelt a few days after her death. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

Friends and family members had set up a memorial on Route 58 in Riverhead for hit-and-run victim Kristina Tfelt a few days after her death last July. (Credit: Paul Squire, file)

A bill that would increase penalties for those who flee the scenes of serious or fatal accidents passed through the New York State Assembly with bipartisan support Thursday with hours to spare, according to North Fork Assemblyman Anthony Palumbo, who co-sponsored the bill.

Mr. Palumbo (R-New Suffolk) said the decision “was pretty near unanimous,” though no official tally was immediately available.

The bill — drawn up by Assemblyman Edward Hennessey (D-Medford) — has since been transferred to the state Senate, which had until the end of this year’s legislative session Thursday night to pass the legislation.

(Sources have said the Senate might reconvene on Friday.)

“Just yesterday [Wednesday] we read about another tragic hit-and-run incident; it seems like there’s one a week,” Mr. Hennessey said in a statement. “Current penalties just aren’t strong enough. As DWI penalties increase and prosecutors are more aggressive on vehicular crimes, people are leaving the scene of accidents at epidemic rates.”

The bill would create a new charge called “aggravated leaving the scene,” which would carry with it sentences of up to 15 years for hit-and-run drivers who either have revoked or suspended licenses, or those without any license or those with a prior conviction for drunken driving offenses or for leaving the scene of an accident.

Mr. Palumbo said last-minute changes to the bill on Wednesday made it more attractive for lawmakers previously on the fence.

Specifically, in order to convict those charged with the increased penalties, prosecutors would also have to prove that the hit-and-run driver was “driving recklessly,” Mr. Palumbo said.

Mr. Palumbo said he and Mr. Hennessey are now negotiating with senators to pass a Senate version of the Assembly bill.

In May, the Senate voted — with support from senators Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) — to similarly increase the penalties for hit-and-runs. That bill died in the Assembly.

Mr. Palumbo said some senators wish to split the penalties in the bill: keep the highest sentence for fatalities but reduce the sentence for “serious injuries” to a maximum of 7 years.

“That’s kind of back and forth, but that’s where we are now,” Mr. Palumbo said in an interview. “We’re trying to work the ground game.”

psquire@timesreview.com